Friday, June 26, 2015

5x5 Graphic Novel(s): The Parker adaptations by Darwyn Cooke

1. A few years back (2009), Darwyn Cooke made a big splash with his graphic novel adaptation of famed crime writer Donald Westlake's The Hunter (written under the pen name Richard Stark), and I gobbled it up eagerly. When I was a young man, I read all the Stark books - the Parker series and the (much smaller) Grofield collection - and I had anticipated that Cooke's sensibility would be a perfect match for the series: that sort of Mad Men meets Goodfellas feeling. I was right.

2. The first book ended with a tease that there would be more Parker adaptations coming. Apparently I missed a memo or two - because there have been three more books already! I only tipped to the series after I ran across Books Two and Three at the library. The library copies still have the dust jackets (cellophaned, of course), but I removed the one on my copy of Book One because I like the retro flavor the binding so much.

3. Packaging aside, the quality of the books hold up across the series (or at least the 75% of it I have seen so far), and it's not just a matter of matching the art style to the subject matter. Cooke is not just a great cartoonist; he's also a good writer, who knows how to make an adaptation work. The pacing of the stories and the unfolding of the plots (including complex action) is flawless; Cooke knows when to use text and when to let the images alone carry the narrative.

4. A note from a formalist perspective, since this is me: Book Two diverges from its focus on Parker to show the activities of some of his criminal cronies as they rob syndicate operations. Each account is in a different style: an illustrated magazine article (with a lot of prose); fifties PSA cartooning; New Yorker-style cartoons; and what I can only call illustration sketchwork. The flavor these choices create move us out of the reality of the main story in the same way italics or margins or typeface might set off a secondary narrative within a prose book, but with many more layers of meaning added thanks to the art. Well-played, Mr. Cooke.

5. All that being said, after reading through a bunch of these in a row, I come up feeling a little bit empty. It isn't for want of content or execution, either in the original story or in the graphic adaptation. It's just that Parker is such a relentlessly amoral, brutal character that it is hard for me to sustain any sympathy for him, and without that identification, the books become nothing more than a series of beautifully rendered, grisly encounters. I read somewhere that Westlake wrote the anti-hero Parker stories on rainy days and the relatively light-hearted Grofield stories (and I'd guess the comic Dortmunder capers) on sunny days. I guess I would like to see a Darwyn Cooke take on a sunny day story.

Bonus: when I was describing Cooke's ability to visually capture early sixties motifs, a friend said "You mean like those big clocks with the spines and balls!" Precisely. And while there isn't actually one of those in any of the Parker books, we do get this

 and that's pretty close.

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